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dr. phil's rule of sequels

What is it about Sequelmania? Why are there so many sequels?

So why do so many sequels stink?

This brings us to Dr. Phil's Rule of Sequels, which applies equally to Books and Movies:

Most Sequels are not as good as the Originals upon which they are based.

And here's why:

1. The Loss of Innocence.

Many sequels lose a certain of innocence from the first story. Perhaps it is because we are learning about the story the first time, so all is new, and may be new to the characters as well. Once the first story is played, you cannot easily recapture that feeling of innocence and wonder. The later stories have room to explore more topics that weren't covered the first time, but by necessity many of these elements are minutiae or obscure. The big points are all supposed to be well-known and we are comfortable with them. This is very true of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that we can return to a world we understand. But we have lost that first-time innocence, and surprisingly, so do the characters many times as well. So we read the sequels, and sometimes they're all right, but we long for the magic of the original.

EXAMPLES:

Dune / Frank Herbert. This classic SF book was massive for its day. Sharing much in common with Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings for complexity of development and a seemingly complete culture of ancient records to quote and tell stories from, Dune also seemed destined to turn into a Trilogy as well as Tolkein's three-volume story. But although Dune Messiah and Children of Dune continued on the story, so of course we read them, it just wasn't the same as having that thick paperback book and reading it excitedly at 2am on a 100-degree night when you wouldn't actually be sleeping anyway. (Fortunately Herbert didn't stop there, instead embarking on a further series with God Emperor of Dune and many more that emphasize the political nature of the story. After his death, his son worked from his notes and now has several excellent prequel Dune stories from before the first book.)

Ender's Game / Orson Scott Card. The technology to make this into a decent SF movie is about here. I've read this story as a short story, a longer novella, this book -- and recently a parallel sequel Ender's Shadow which duplicates most of this story, but from another character's point of view, a very clever writing trick, if you ask me. But EG is followed by several sequels, including Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, which advance the story radically far away from the original. And again, the innocence of the original is lost. The main character is painfully aware of that.

Back to the Future. Although it ends with a mad comment by Doc Brown that suggests more mayhem and adventures, the fact is that we could have lived with just one Marty McFly story and we would have been happy. BTTF II was a lot weaker, though they sucked it up and cable channels run BTTF III much more often. But still BTTF I was a LOT more innocent good fun than the finale in the third film.

Star Wars. We're talking about what is now known in the iconography as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Had George Lucas ended it right there, that would have been enough. It would have worked. And it would play on cable TV every couple of Christmases.

The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkein. This is one of the few cases of a story, where the later story, The Lord of the Rings, isn't perhaps precisely a sequel, but because they are connected, The Trilogy is often labeled as such. But where The Hobbit is just a good adventuring yarn of daring deeds and treasure seeking by a small (and feisty) hobbit, The Trilogy, which is by far the better story, DOES lose the innocence of Bilbo just going out in the world to make a fortune. Frodo's business is most deadly, and Bilbo regrets even getting his nephew involved in the whole thing. Some people mistakenly believe that The Hobbit is intended to be the children's story whereas The Trilogy is for adults. The real difference is really in the time it took to write.

2. The Gimmick.

Too many sequels rely on some gimmick in order to get everybody back together again. But once the gimmick is revealed, all that can be done is to play the same story out again. Frankly, once the familiarity loses its luster, the lack of a real story begins to reveal itself and the story begins to be not so fun any more. Not only that, the character may change. Or worse, there seems to be little or no relation between the original and the sequel(s).

EXAMPLES:

Crocodile Dundee & Crocodile Dundee II. Paul Hogan's deep bush act was funny in the original, because we knew he was both con man and semi-poacher, but also a real serious Outback guy. A loner, part raised by Aboriginals and well able to handle himself out in the bush.

Rambo series. Excuse me, but didn't Rambo start out being a nutcase? I mean, sure, he was probably justified in thinking that his superiors left him and his soldier brothers out on a limb, but he was a loose cannon. So when did he become a comic book hero? Go from being a tough survivalist along the lines of the real life Army Special Forces or the Navy SEALS, to this superhuman superpatriot?

Highlander and Highlander II. The original was such a good concept -- and the cinematography was outstanding, with some excellent fades and wipes between scenes/time periods. But the sequel changed the whole story. Huh? You can't change the rules in the middle of the game! Makes a fan angry.

2A. The Hook

This is awfully similar to The Gimmick, which is why I make it a variation, because The Hook is more of a positive thing. It's the reason you WANT to see the sequel, because they have ANNOYED you. Or else just made it obvious that they WANT to make sequels.

EXAMPLES:

The Empire Strikes Back & The Return of the Jedi. I can sum up the hook between these two films in four words. "I am your father." It couldn't POSSIBLY be true, just as Luke twists his face in horror at the thought, that Darth Vader is the father of Luke and Leia. Could it? I mean, why would George Lucas bring it up? And if he WAS their dad, then was Obi-Wan Kenobi lying to Luke? And Yoda? What could possibly be going on? I should point out that these are officially Star Wars Episode V and Star Wars Episode VI respectively now.

Young Sherlock Holmes. This was a different take on the whole Sherlock Holmes legend, postulating what might have been had Holmes and Watson had met in boarding school -- a common enough experience in England for young lads to meet and form lifelong friendships, as well as plenty of highjinks and adventures. This is also an example of something that Dr. Phil just LOVES -- the movie doesn't quite stop when the credits start rolling. At the end, we see this sleigh going through the snow in the Swiss mountains. And as the credits stream on, we watch the sleight disappear, towards this inn. When the credits are done, we find the sleigh parked at the inn, and then a view of the sign-in book, and a voice welcoming the new guest... who signs his name as... Moriarity. (That's Sherlock Holmes future nemesis, in case you aren't up on your Holmes & Watson.) But, YSH never did well enough in the box office to spend any more bucks on the sequels, so it ended there.

3. The Reprise, The Return, The Revenge, The Repeat.

These are the seeds of what will probably be a series of sequels. You can see this in most any comic book (or graphic novel) adaptation, where there is any chance that the villian(s) can return. In James Bond movies, suddenly Sean Connery gets a furrowed brow. "Blaufeld", he will say. Or we will see just the lap of a man petting a white cat. Same thing. We in the audience know what is going to come. It is the familiar. It is the rematch. It is (mostly) fun. But it isn't necessarily high art. Other times we just need to know that its the same team we had fun with the first time.

4. The Correction.

Sometimes a technical development, either in terms of $$$$ or real science or film technology, dictates that it would be nice to revisit a project and do a better job of it.

EXAMPLES:

The Ringworld Engineers / Larry Niven. Niven had no intention of revisiting his Ringworld, a "space station" so huge that the ring goes around a star at the same distance as a planet like Earth orbits the Sun. That's a big structure. It also turns out to have a minor problem. As MIT students chanted in the hallways at a science fiction convention, "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!" See, it turns out that even if you COULD build a ringlike structure that huge and put it spinning around a star so as to provide artificial gravity via the centripetal acceleration, it is unstable in the plane of the ring and semi-stable on the axis. (My previous explanation here was wrong. Something I whipped together, based on something I read and I didn't work it out completely. As was kindly pointed out to me by someone outside of WMU via e-mail -- Many thanks!) In other words, the Ringworld is not actually in orbit around the star like a planet. That means it could potentially wander away or even run into the star (or at least collide with the shadow squares -- another nifty technology designed to simulate day and night on the inside surface of the Ringworld, which is always facing its sun). So Niven felt he had to write a story about the attitude control system of the Ringworld -- and explain why it wasn't detected during the first expedition in the book Ringworld.

2010: Odyssey 2 / Arthur C. Clarke & 2010: Odyssey 2 (movie). The original "2001: A Space Odyssey", both Clarke's novel and Stanley Kubrick's movie, are classics of Science Fiction. The book may be more exciting to read than watching the movie, but the movie was startling in its ability to show what life in space would really be like. So why a sequel? Because from 1968 to 1984 there were tremendous advances in knowledge about the Solar System from the probes Pioneers 10 and 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2, which Clarke wanted to talk about. Less mystical, perhaps, than the 2001's, 2010 is more of a conventional SF movie and story, it was easier for Hollywood to tell. So let's call the two a draw.

The Road Warrior. This is actually the SECOND movie with Mel Gibson as Mad Max. The first, entitled Mad Max, was a pretty low budget Australian movie, which was not shown in the U.S. until well after TRW became a huge hit. The thing of it is, the future was not quite as dark in the first one. There was still a police organization and some semblance of civilization. We never quite understand how things deteoriate the way they do, but they do. (And they deteoriate even further by the third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.)

Terminator / Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The first movie was cheezy low budget movie which became a hit -- and made Arnold-speak famous. (grin) The second has this big chase scene, exploding helicopters and a liquid metal Terminator which would have been impossible in the original. (We will not speak at the moment about T3: The Rise of the Machines.)

5. The Plan.

This is where multiple books or movies are constructed from the get-go.

EXAMPLES:

The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolution and Superman: The Movie & Superman II. Both of these movie pairs are cases where the producers intended to make two movies at the same time intentionally. In the case of the two sequels to The Matrix, this was done with full knowledge of all parties. In the case of The Man of Steel, they did a rather underhanded thing by filming so much that, despite the cast asking questions about isn't this too much, they "suddenly" discovered that there was so much cut out that they could put it in another film. I think that the producers actually thought that maybe they didn't have to pay the cast for the second movie, since they were already paid, but the lawyers must have set them straight after bandying about words like "fraud". Or something like that.

The Lord of the Rings. No way can LOTR fit in one movie. Peter Jackson's plan to make three big movies -- and later offer longer Extended Editions on DVD -- genius. Indeed, you could argue that this is just one movie, with two intermissions (five if you count swapping DVDs in the two-disk EE sets). The fact that only Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has expensive looking credits cements the deal for me.

6. The Expected Series.

Some projects are just expected to blossom into series. There is no way that there was ever going to be just ONE Star Trek movie. After all, this was from a TV SERIES or rather multiple TV series. Detectives and spies fit easily into this category. Covers a lot of ground actually, including all those Charlie Chan movies from the 30s and 40s. And Bond... James Bond.

7. The Prequel.

The Prequel, or sequel that happens BEFORE the original, is definitely a special case. This method has the advantage that you don't have to necessarily worry about what happened in the first story -- it's a way to recapture the innocence.

EXAMPLES:

Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by the two Indiana Jones and the... movies which take place before the first. (Temple of Doom is weak, dumb and disgusting even. But The Last Crusade is a delight and Sean Connery is a joy.)

The Godfather Part II. The granddaddy of all sequels, Part II is actually half sequel and half prequel. In fact, NBC once recut Part I and Part II into a single seamless chronology which is called The Godfather Saga. Both versions are completely watchable and Part II is The Exeception That Proves The Rule, as a sequel/prequel that is actually as good as the original. (Then there's The Godfather Part III, which is memorable as an example of why directors should not hire their daughters to play major parts in their movies...)

8. The Remake.

Though not actually a Sequel, the Remake satisfies many of the marketing, moneymaking and creative (or lack thereof) criteria listed above for sequels. There are three reasons why a Remake can be made:

(1) Because the original is in a foreign language -- and the American movie going public does not like dubbed or subtitled movies. (Life is Beautiful, Amelie and a few others have broken through that barrier.)

(2) Because the original was in black & white -- and Americans don't want to see old black & white movies. (I suppose that Ted Turner's attempt to colorize many classic B&W movies to make them more marketable for TV reruns and VHS rentals would have to be included as a subset of this rule.)

(3) Because the original was so good that a new team of directors and actors want a crack at it. This actually isn't as crazy as it sounds. After all, every time a theatre company decides to mount a play, they are doing a new version of something that has been done before, sometimes for thousands of performances, sometimes for hundreds of years. It's just that an 1812 performance of Hamlet in Philadelphia is not accessable today, whereas you can get a copy of most, if not all, of Hitchcock's films.

(4) Because the orignal was so bad that a new team couldn't do any worse. (This explains why remake Ocean's Eleven, according to some.)

Oh, didn't I say there were three reasons? Well, that was in the Original -- this must be the Remake. Made better 'cause it's newer. Right?

EXAMPLES:

The Bourne Identity and The Thomas Crown Affair. Spy and thief movies apparently can't be written anymore, so we have to redo films from before. By themselves, the remade versions were pretty good. Compared to the originals, though... well, Dr. Phil's Mom is furious about The Bourne Identity, and for all it's fun, you really have to see both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair to actually understand what happens in the Remake. That doesn't always mean that the originals are better.

Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear. One takes place in the rain forest jungle, the other in a dry desert. The basic story is the same. Someone has to transport some unstable dynamite/nitroglycerin over an impossible rugged road in order to blow some oil well fires. I like both versions, but it is amazing to compare and contrast them and ask -- how did they get here from there?

The Italian Job. One is an absurdist British romp. The other is a serious heist-and-chase movie. How did they get the one from the other?


Let's Review...

A quick list of sequels where the later movie is "better".

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade >>> Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The Road Warrior >>> Mad Max

And ones where the later movie is "about the same"

The Godfather Part II = The Godfather

Ones where the sequel is "acceptable"

The Mummy II is okay

Men in Black II is okay

Star Wars Episode 2 is okay

And finally, some ones where the sequel... "exhibits the same physics as that of the lowered internal air pressure of a vacuum cleaner resulting in a negative gauge pressure at the nozzle end of the hose"

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom<<<Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Last update: 04 March 2008 Tuesday